Angel cast and creators reunite for 20th anniversary of beloved vampire drama series
In the City of Angels, the sun is shining brightly on Good Friday. But beyond a heavy black door, away from harsh light, vampires, demons, and a rogue demon hunter or two gather in the darkness of an abandoned warehouse.
Okay, so the Hollywood studio that's serving as the location for EW's Angel reunion shoot isn't actually a warehouse, nor a meeting place for the undead. Rather, the cast of the WB drama is very human, and expressing very human levels of excitement at being together again, 20 years after their show debuted.
"It's good to see everybody!" says David Boreanaz, 50, the show's titular vampire who, upon arrival, immediately makes a beeline for the dressing room to find his costars. Spotting Charisma Carpenter (shallow cheerleader-turned-champion Cordelia) and Amy Acker (shy Texan physicist Winifred "Fred" Burkle) in makeup chairs, he plops himself on the counter and sits, legs swinging giddily, catching up with them while they're curled and coiffed. "Look at that smile," he says, gesturing to Carpenter with affection. "We just picked up where we were last time we talked to each other." Speaking of picking up, Acker, 42, enjoyed the series' experience so much, she has already declared she'd be ready for a revival, which would be season 6. "Every show should be this fun," she says. "We were so spoiled."
Angel premiered on The WB on Oct. 5, 1999, as a spin-off of creator Joss Whedon's original vampire series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and furthered the story of a bloodsucker whom the Romany cursed with a soul as punishment for a century of mass murder. Leaving Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Sunnydale behind, Angel arrived in Los Angeles to continue his quest for redemption by helping the helpless, one at a time. Over the course of five seasons (all of which are available to stream on Hulu), Angel was aided by fellow Buffy expats Cordelia Chase (Carpenter), Wesley Wyndam-Pryce (Alexis Denisof), and Spike (James Marsters), and new allies Fred (Acker) and vampire hunter Charles Gunn (J. August Richards), among other humans and demons along the way until The WB abruptly canceled the show in 2004. (We will get to that unmerciful killing later.)
Angel was the brain spawn of Whedon and Buffy writer David Greenwalt, who'd been the one to pen the first kiss between the Slayer and her vampire-with-a soul boo Angel. "It all made sense on paper," says Whedon, 55. "But until you have a show, you don't have a show." The duo began carving out a heavier series than Buffy — for a minute it even got too dark and the network had to intervene — that would explore a different message from Buffy's what-kind-of-person-will-you-be? themes. Instead, it would focus on the idea of dealing with the consequences of your actions. "We thought, let's do a noir thing that's about addiction and redemption, and we'll put them in L.A.," says Greenwalt. "The stories will be darker and, more important, he'll be darker." What they ended up with certainly had intense moments, but also plenty of humor and heart, too.
Life Beyond the Breakup
Spoiler alert from almost two decades ago: Buffy and Angel's love didn't last for all undead eternity. Still, Whedon wasn't ready to say goodbye to Boreanaz's thoughtful portrayal of the damned creature who was so damn easy to love. Although Angel premiered alongside Buffy's fourth season, the heavens opened and the idea for a spin-off actually struck Whedon during the parent show's second season when Whedon saw Boreanaz play a female role in an episode during which Buffy and Angel are possessed by a high school student and teacher, respectively. "I watched David very emotionally, unabashedly, and poetically playing a woman, and in that moment was like, 'This guy can anchor a show,' " he says.
Whedon pitched Greenwalt the idea of taking the brooding, cursed-with-a-conscience vampire to L.A. with a mission to save others in return for ultimate absolution. "We started talking in terms of redemption," says Whedon. "We realized, while Buffy is about the hero's journey — that 'becoming the person you are' that happens in adolescence — Angel is about dealing with the person you've been." Or, as co-creator Greenwalt, 69, puts it: "Buffy has this wonderful purpose and fights evil, but still wants to go to the prom and get the right dress. Angel is a much darker and, in a sense, more complex character."
Even with a lead who inspires confidence and a complicated character to explore, spin-offs can be risky (see: Party of Five's Time of Your Life, Dawson's Creek's Young Americans). Plus, snatching the love interest from a successful show could anger fans. But for Whedon, keeping the character on the original series was a potential death sentence — even for an undead vamp. "Buffy is a show about the experience of life," he explains. "And the experience of life where you go to college and your high school boyfriend sticks around? That show is only about how terrible that year is, and then it stops." The new series targeted an older (though not quite as old as its protagonist), relatively untapped demographic. "Angel is the oldest guy to ever be on The WB," jokes Greenwalt (whom the cast affectionately dubbed "Greenie"). "He's, like, 228 years old, right? Where Buffy is a high school metaphor, there's not a lot of great metaphors for your 20s. They're really kind of wasted years when you just look good and young." Telling a postgrad narrative, the co-creators felt, allowed them to reach more people.
That's not to say grown-up Angel didn't have its share of teething problems. When the network saw the script for episode two, they balked. "They completely freaked out and they were right because in our effort to go dark, we went a little too dark," says Greenwalt of a scene in which Angel lets a girl die and then licks her blood up off the ground. "If you're gonna go that dark, you have to earn it. So, we shut down for a few weeks, revamped some things and we were off and running."
Convening the Coven
As it turns out, when Whedon wants to tell you something important, he invites you to eat. Initially, when Boreanaz received the lunch invite, he panicked, thinking he was being fired. But when the actual conversation transpired, all the actor could think about was the Irish. In the midst of shooting a Buffy scene that flashed back to the 18th century, Boreanaz showed up to lunch in his ponytailed wig, preoccupied with the brogue he was trying to perfect. "I think we started talking about the Grateful Dead," remembers Boreanaz. "Then he's like, 'Yeah, we're thinking about spinning your character off.' And I'm like, 'All right,' but I'm concerned about my accent that I'm supposed to do in the scene." Says Whedon with a laugh, "David's not a great squealer; the word confetti doesn't come to mind."
Apt, since Boreanaz's Angel loved a good brood as much as a pint of body-temp blood. But Greenwalt realized a sulking hero can make an audience grow somber too, so he came up with a way to add some, um, charisma to the series. "Immediately after I said yes, I said we have to bring Charisma Carpenter to the show because we need to brighten the darkness of Angel," says Greenwalt. Agrees Carpenter, 48, "When you bring a big bright smile to this dismal, dark thing, it provides a conflict or contrast that makes it interesting."
Enter Cordelia: the sharp-tongued, Sunnydale High May Queen who heads to L.A. with the hopes of becoming a star. But, as the series repeatedly reminds us, in L.A. big dreams can pretty quickly become real nightmares, and before long Cordy joins Angel to help the helpless and her empty checking account. "We sat Charisma down and she was pretty excited, but she was like, 'If it flops, can I go back to Buffy?'" says Greenwalt, who assured Carpenter she could. While Whedon believes Carpenter was right to ask that question, he was also seeing potential for the character beyond a bright spot in a dark room. In Cordelia, he found he had an opportunity to tell an origin story, something he had to skip with Gellar as Buffy. "You get to watch her go from somebody who is completely shallow and self-involved to somebody who is a hero," he says.
When the show premiered, the original main trio was rounded out by Irish actor and Roseanne alum Glenn Quinn, who played Doyle, a lovable half-demon cursed with visions of people in danger, whom Angel could then save. After nine episodes, Quinn's character was written out and a self-proclaimed rogue demon hunter, Denisof's Wesley, entered the fray instead. He wasn't quite as rogue as he claimed to be, nor was he unfamiliar, having appeared in season 3 of Buffy. "I commend this gentleman because he had to come into a situation," says Boreanaz of Denisof. "Obviously it was a great character, but he filled that missing hole."
As is his style, Whedon invited Denisof (Chilling Adventures of Sabrina) to breakfast. "We came up with this summer of rebellion that Wesley had had and then he arrives on a motorcycle with big ideas of himself,'" says Denisof of the character-building discussion with Whedon. "Other than fitting him in, there wasn't really a plan, long-term, for him, but it ended up being an extraordinary roller coaster." Part of that bumpy ride included a seasons-spanning love triangle with the introduction of timid Fred (Acker, who joined the show in the second season) and vampire hunter Charles Gunn (Richards, who came aboard toward the end of the first).
Both Richards and Acker were relatively new to the industry when they auditioned for their parts, and both took unorthodox routes to landing them. His hair dyed red in a bid to show The WB he wasn't "too clean-cut for the role," Richards (who can be seen next this fall on Council of Dads) walked into his audition channeling advice to investigate the opposite of what your character's saying that he'd garnered from an episode of Inside the Actors Studio with Meryl Streep. "I remember feeling really good about it, and then Joss just looks at me and goes, 'My wife's hair is that color,' " says Richards, laughing. When Whedon came across Acker in the audition room, it was more of a hair-blown-back-in-awe experience. "Amy walked in the door as I was handing her photo to [producer] Marti Noxon, and it flew out of my hand and hit Marti in the face," says the co-creator. "That was about as suave as I got. She was just the most captivating human I'd ever seen."
The Road to Redemption
Angel found its rhythm and tone, paying homage to classic film noir and mixing genres along the way. "Credit to the writers and showrunners, they were very brave about creating a heady cocktail of drama and humor," says Denisof. Whedon sums it up best: "It's apocalyptic goofy noir." From the darkest scenes (such as Angel attempting to kill Wesley as he lay in a hospital bed) to the most ridiculous (a spell turning Angel into a Muppet comes to mind), there was no denying it was unique television. And for a show pegged on such a bleak premise, there were lots of laughs both on and off camera — and karaoke, thanks to the introduction of an all-singing, aura-reading demon named Lorne, played by Andy Hallett, who passed away in 2009. Plus, Boreanaz was a total prankster on set. "There was almost no take that didn't end with all of us just laughing because David had started something," says Denisof. Adds Carpenter, "But then he'd be able to stop, and three hours later, we're still laughing!"
Though there continued to be the occasional crossover with the show that sired it (and a couple more Buffy alums joining the show, like Mercedes McNab's Harmony), Angel evolved into its own beast, often maintaining the case-of-the-week, procedural element but also introducing larger, season-spanning narrative arcs. For more than 100 episodes, Angel battled on, gradually coming to terms with the truth that evil will always exist, it's how you confront it that matters. "There's a wonderful power in genre [television]," muses Greenwalt. "You can do deeper, more emotional metaphors, and yet people still feel slightly removed from the issues because they say, 'Oh, that's fantasy.'" Some of those more emotional moments included a story arc where Angel and the vampire who sired him, Darla (Julie Benz), have a son. After some accelerated aging in a hell dimension, Angel's now-teenage son Connor was played by Mad Men's Vincent Kartheiser. "For Angel to have a son, I mean that just opened up so much," says Greenwalt. "It was just great for him to have to go through even more living hell."
At the reunion shoot, the cast discusses favorite episodes. On a show with so many offbeat and daring turns, it's hard to narrow them down, but one adventure does keep coming up: the trip to a demon dimension called Pylea, only accessible by passing through a mystical portal. "We drove a car through the entrance of Paramount studios!" exclaims Boreanaz. Since Pylea wasn't Earth, vampires could stand in sunlight without combusting. Suddenly a cast that was largely confined to night shoots — "Sixteen-hour days in a stinky alley with people yelling at you to let them sleep!" recalls Carpenter fondly — could film in daylight. "You'd have thought we'd be happy, but it happened to come during a heat wave," says Denisof. "It was sweltering and we were all in our brooding, dark clothes." A much-needed distraction during shooting came in the form of Whedon going undercover as a green horned demon and performing a dance number that lasted a good few minutes more than he expected. "I didn't have four minutes of a dance made up, and I was terribly out of shape," says Whedon with a laugh.
Those were the lighter days. When Angel had to revert to his soulless demon counterpart Angelus, things grew more uncomfortable. Embracing the dark headspace necessary to pull off the depraved demon was actually the lesser of two evils for Boreanaz; the literal headspace was worse — namely a risen brow and fangs. "This was before easy CGI effects, so all of that was real and it was a long, uncomfortable process," says Denisof of the vampire makeup. "We were all pretty sensitive to what David had to go through when he was in Angelus mode." As soon as they yelled cut, Boreanaz would immediately rip the brow piece from his face, so fast that one time a chunk hit James Marsters (fellow vamp Spike) in the face. A dark look passes over Boreanaz's own human brow as he casts his mind back to the experience. Still, from behind the camera, Whedon was a fan of the Angelus turns. "It's always fun to have an electric character," he says. "He inevitably ends up being an empowering figure because he sees through you and being able to face him means that you're stronger."
Going Down Swinging
Heading into the fifth season, the cast and crew initially expected there to be a sixth, but when cancellation news hit during production, story lines that had the potential to run for years suddenly had to be wrapped up in half a season. That included an arc with Marsters, who had just joined the show as Buffy veteran vamp Spike, filling the space left by Cordelia's departure. Marsters, 56, describes the dynamic as "the college friend who comes over to stay with you and he swears to God it's for just one week, but he will not get off the couch and never leaves." Though there was much more to explore in Angel's new foil, Whedon (Greenwalt had departed the series by this point but remained a consulting producer) made the most of the episodes he had. "It's very important to me that something goes out as strong as it can be," says Whedon, who went on to write and direct The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron. "And there was enough time for us to take it where we thought it should go."
In a show where death is tantalizingly dangled in front of the characters in most episodes, it was time to make good on those threats. Once again, Whedon invited a cast member to eat with him. This time, it was Acker. "We sat down at coffee and he said, 'I just wanted you to know, I'm killing Fred,'" says Acker (Person of Interest, The Gifted). "And he waited, really a long time before he said, 'You're still gonna be on the show.'" Laughs Whedon, "I took my moment, I'm not going to lie." Acker later told Whedon it was the second part of the sentence that terrified her more. When Whedon said she'd still be on the show, he meant as a blue demon named Illyria, who takes over Fred's body, killing her in the process. Whedon gave Acker some scenes for her new character to mull over, then invited her and Denisof to his house to run through them. The creator landed on Illyria's hue then and there, by utilizing a multi-colored lightening function in his kitchen to flick through different shades. "He got to the blue lights and he was like, 'Yeah, this is it,'" recalls Acker.
While Fred lived on in a certain respect, by the series finale, Wesley's fate was sealed. In the ultimate showdown with the Circle of the Black Thorn (a secret society of the most despicable harbingers of the apocalypse), the former Watcher meets his end in the arms of the women he loved, thanks to Illyria transforming herself back into Fred for those dying moments. "I still get feelings about that scene," says Denisof. "It was saying goodbye to a lot of things all at once. I remember on the day it was hard to keep it simple — be in the scene and not have the end of the show, the end of the character and the end of an era all coming into it. I can't say it didn't." As for the fate of the rest of the Angel Investigations team? Well…
When the series finale aired in May 2004, audiences were split on the seemingly open ending. The episode's last scene sees a secret society of apocalypse harbingers opening the gateways to hell right into Los Angeles. The remaining members of the group look on as thousands of demons, creatures, and giants crawl onto the streets. As a dragon flies overhead, Angel turns to them and says, "Personally, I kinda want to slay the dragon. Let's go to work." Cut to black.
Whedon knows what you're thinking, but doesn't agree. "That ain't a cliff," he says. "I understand why people would want closure, but for me, that would be like adding a cliff note to the end. What I always wanted to say is, trying to become worthy of the life that you have is a life's work. The fight is for always."
And that's the series' true message: The pursuit is never-ending. "I always hope that people feel the difficulty and possibility of redemption within the show," says Whedon. "The price will always be high," he continues, but if — as Angel says — we're willing to "do the work, it will always be worth it." It certainly was for Boreanaz. "I'm so proud of what we all accomplished," he says. "There's such strength in all of these characters; they struggle and they do find redemption somehow."
To read more from our exclusive Angel cast reunion, pick up the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly on stands Friday, purchase a special limited edition cover featuring David Boreanaz (available online only), or collect both! And don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.